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Penn's role in recovery of Haiti has grown

Sean Penn no longer lives in a tent, surrounded by 40,000 desperate Haitians camped on a muddy golf course.

He no longer rushes around the capital with a Glock pistol tucked in his waistband, hefting bags of donated rice and warning of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

But the American actor who stormed onto the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in history has certainly not lost interest. Defying skeptics, he has put down roots in Haiti, a country he hadn't even visited before the January 2010 earthquake, and has become a major figure in the effort to rebuild.

"At the beginning, we thought he was going to be like one of the celebrities who don't spend the night," said Maryse Kedar, president of an education foundation who has worked with Penn. "I can tell you that Sean surprised a lot of people here. Haiti became his second home."

Penn's role has evolved over the two years of Haiti's meandering recovery. He started as the head of a band of volunteers, morphed into the unofficial mayor of the golf course-turned-homeless camp and became a part of the president's circle who addresses investors at aid conferences and represents this poor Caribbean country to the world.

He is now an ambassador-at-large for President Michel Martelly, the first non-Haitian to receive the designation, and the CEO of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, an increasingly prominent aid group.

The actor, who is being honored Wednesday for his work in Haiti with the 2012 Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Chicago, has yoked himself to an unlikely cause: helping a country that has lurched from one calamity to another.

It's strange to see a celebrity of his stature in these surroundings. He brings glamour to a country that has none, where the streets are largely dirt and most people don't have indoor plumbing. His leftist politics don't seem like a match for right-of-center Martelly, and his leadership of an aid group partially funded by the U.N. doesn't square with his contempt for foreign organizations.

But maybe there is a kind of weird logic to Penn's adventure in Haiti. He is an actor whose most famous roles are underdogs and whose politics frequently put him at odds with the U.S. government, embracing the likes of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez.

Or maybe he just wanted to help, said Bichat Laroque, 26, who lives in the displaced persons camp managed by Penn's organization: "He married Madonna and he made a lot of money, and after a terrible earthquake he says, 'Let's do good things in Haiti.' "